We all know that person, the grumpy old crank who seems to derive his main enjoyment in life from stirring up trouble with everyone he meets. He harasses you for minor offenses like texting too frequently or playing music too loudly. But did you ever stop to think how he ended up this way? Or how one day you could too?
A Man Called Ove, written by Fredrik Backman, tells the story of one of these familiar curmudgeons. In some ways, Ove seems predisposed to anger and hostility, but as the story dives into his past we uncover a man who has faced many hardships leading him to develop a strict set of principles for how the world should function. At his core, Ove is a good person, but his downfall stems from his deep inflexibility and resistance to adapt in a changing and unsympathetic world.
As a New York Times bestseller, this Swedish novel drew attention to Ove’s fictional plight worldwide. The recent movie adaptation also earned two Academy Award nominations, including Best Foreign Language Film. So, what is it about this grumpy old man that has garnered him so much attention? First of all, both the book and the movie are wickedly funny. The story centers on a man who just wants to die. After losing his wife and anchor in this ever-changing world, he decides his time has come too. The problem is that his pesky neighbors won’t leave him alone long enough to get the job done. The whole story arc is an escalating joke. The further Ove tries to draw back in to reclusion, the more people he collects in his life (not to mention a stray cat who begins to follow him around). Despite the dark humor filled plot, the story still manages to be uplifting.
The book has some very funny moments that often draw back towards a deeper meaning and understanding of the heart of Ove. Highlights include: when he berates the manager of an electronics store for telling him an iPad is not a computer; his daily security checks around his neighborhood – especially his obsession with the parking rules; spending his entire vacation in Spain fixing people’s broken cars and fences; and most memorably, punching a clown at the hospital. While the film does a hilarious reenactment of his neighborhood security checks, it lacks many of these other standout moments. We never see the him struggle to understand the technology of the mythical iPad, so later on, when we do see him purchase an iPad for his neighbor’s daughter, we lose the emotional impact of the scene. We also never get to see Ove punch that rude clown. Granted, the movie doesn’t have the advantage of telling Ove’s somewhat understandable internal justification for the act, so they water down the interaction with the clown to make Ove seem less crazy.
Most notably, the movie fails to depict the full breadth of Ove’s interaction with Mirsad, a gay teen who has been kicked out of his home by a homophobic father. They show Ove taking Mirsad in to his home, but miss the more important moment from the book where Ove facilitates a reconciliation between father and son. As is always the case with movie adaptations from books, some of the story must be edited down to fit the screenplay format. The story resulting from this process will hit the major action points from the book, but will feel very different.
A Man Called Ove is both a comedy and a tear jerker. The comedy in the book comes through largely in Ove’s narration of the story and his skewed view of the modern world. In turn, the tears usually derive from his interactions with other characters: his acceptance of an ostracized gay teen; teaching his very pregnant neighbor how to drive; fixing his sworn enemy’s radiator; and most importantly, moving heaven and earth to take care of his disabled wife. Through these acts of kindness, we understand the heart of the man beneath his outward crabbiness. Unsurprisingly, the movie feels weightier than the book as it demonstrates these acts of kindness from an outside perspective, untainted by Ove’s view and humorous voice.
While some of the humor may be lost, the movie adds a sense of whimsy to the story. The dreamy music, sentimental voice over, and bright colors seem markedly European. The book feels more universal, like the story could take place anywhere in the developed world. In contrast, the movie is distinctly Swedish. This goes beyond the obvious fact that the actors speak Swedish. As an American, I occasionally felt like the movie’s jokes went over my head. For example, the addition of the famous country song “Always on My Mind” during a funeral seem seemed a bit hackneyed to me, but I’m guessing the appropriation of this American tune is much funnier to a Swedish audience. Also, the actors seemed more reserved and much more like real people than the dramatic characters in a typical Hollywood film. I found this dynamic refreshing and appreciated the innate Swedishness of the film, even if admittedly, I didn’t always understand the jokes.
Cultural differences aside, both the book and movie hit upon universal themes of love, acceptance and adaptability to change. Ove learns to cope with the changing world by leaning on those he loves, whether that be his pregnant Iranian neighbor, a misunderstood homosexual teen, or a mangy old cat in need of care. These people (and the cat) are drawn to him because of his acceptance of their difference. Ove doesn’t really care where you are from or what you believe, he treats everyone with the same amount of open hostility. These people uncover the kindness hidden beneath this old man’s grief, proving that love is the antidote for life’s hardships.